Things have changed a great deal in the last 18 months. Companies are getting serious about social media. And we've seen enough cases recently about mishandled situations in social media to be thinking about what makes sense as a team mix.
In a quick email exchange about his post good agencies don't hire social media strategists, Sean Howard and I were musing that outsourcing digital is as much a risk as is hoping that a social media expert will save the day. Is there a role for agencies in the digital space?Should companies outsource social media?
It's no fun wrestling with a question alone, so I reached out to 93 of my connections on LinkedIn to find out what they're thinking along with us. My selection was based on diversity of perspective -- corporate, agency, consulting side -- and geography -- Australasia, Europe, North America.
The question was also posted on the public LinkedIn Q&As and in addition to the responses I received from my friends, which were 20 (19 on LinkedIn and one by email), 11 more people added their take, 2 of whom did not have some form of connection to me.
Let's take a look at the responses.
When you read through the public Q&A, you will see that most answers are a blend of all of the themes that follow. A few core themes that emerged: authenticity, agency and company can work together, and that it may make sense to partner with an agency to ramp up, especially for an organization with scarce resources and internal know-how. A few were totally against outsourcing any of it.
Part of the answers that represent the main themes:
Authenticity is important
One of the opportunities for business to enjoy the benefit of social
media is to express value to customers in an authentic, unmediated voice
enhanced by the potential for immediacy.
Without doubt there are practices and skills that are needed in social media but it is important that organisations begin to acquire them directly, rather than mediating through third parties.
It is a significant trend that brands are moving away from a core obsession with how their image is projected to how well they engage with people (and I shy away from terms like consumers or customers intentionally - in an always-on world we are more than walking wallets). The metaphor of conversation takes on an altogether more literal meaning. [more online - view David MacGregor's profile]
As usual, the answer is "it depends". There are many facets to social media, some of which make perfect sense (e.g. monitoring, measuring, reporting, app development) and other things - mostly in the content development space - that really need to come from an authentic place within the client. [more online - view Simon Young's profile]
The thought of outsourcing something that is so personal makes me nervous. Part of the beauty of social media is it's authenticity. I feel that once you begin down the road of having individuals not intimately tied to the product, service and/or industry, you risk sliding down the slippery slope. [more online - view DJ Waldow's profile]
There's a line here that shouldn't be crossed. Any company or organization can benefit from outsourcing the "how to" of social media to a credible consultancy. The rub is when you lose authenticity by outsourcing "go to" implementations. [view John Pope's profile]Agency and company can work together
Outsourcing does not have to be such a dirty or negative term, nor is it
so black and white of a decision. The choice to outsource must be
determined on a case-by-case basis based upon the company's culture and
objectives. It is alright to outsource as long as the company and
consumers have clear expectations of responsibilities.
Some areas I can see where it would be helpful to outsource are:
- aggregating data
- gleaning insights from large data sets
- filtering through data stream to highlight items requiring personal response [more online - view Lauren Vargas' profile]
From the corporate perspective, I think that you have to approach this answer strategically. What's the attitude and approach your company already applies to marketing and advertising, to customer service, to outsourcing in general? If outsourcing is already a core tactic your company uses to create campaigns or implement programs, them outsourcing some social media functions may make sense for your company. If most of these programs are run in-house, then I think working with an agency should be handled very strategically so that efforts align with your internal efforts. [more online - view Tiffany Monhollon Wilson's profile]
getting started in social media is daunting for most brands because to
those who don't have this in their bloodstream, it's a buzz word - a box
that needs to be checked. The CEO heard that Twitter is all the rage,
that smart companies are blogging, or that they need a Facebook
"presence," and it becomes a quarterly objective. It also comes with a
10 page contract for internal employees before they post their first
tweet, describing what they can/can't say under penalty of termination.
It's enough to make you cringe.
Hiring an expert - an agency or a consultant - to provide guidance on the tools and potential strategies is smart, as it will shorten the learning curve. But you can't outsource your voice. [view Stephen Denny's profile]
the creation of a social media strategy is best done with the
help of a social media consultant or outside agency.
I think the day-to-day is probably best done by someone internally provided they have the time and autonomy to engage on behalf of the company.
Ultimately it's a question of resources and core competencies. Much the same as a company with no knowledge of accounting might outsource their accounting, I think certain companies may struggle, at least initially, with social media. Having an outside perspective from an individual or team that is passionate and well informed about social media can be exceptionally valuable for a company and could help avoid future mistakes. [more online - view Jeff Gibbard's profile]
While I strongly believe in keeping functions like marcomm in-house, I do believe organizations just starting adding social media to their marcomm mix should consult with an experienced professional to ensure it starts off right if they don't have staff already working with social media. [view Ann Marie van den Hurk's profile]
[...] There are some
tasks that may or may not make sense to in-source.
example, companies that want to produce high quality audio or video
podcasts (the kind we produce for clients) may not want to make an
investment in equipment and training, and while inexpensive tools like
Flip cameras are available, we don't encourage clients to depend on them
for sophisticated productions that require professional equipment.
Content development should always originate at the client with input from the consultants about what works and what might not, but it has to be a closely integrated partnership, and doesn't necessarily all belong in-house. [view Steve Lubetkin's profile]
If you truly "get" social media and have the time to nurture it, you can
do it yourself, but most CEOs and company owners don't have the time or
desire to do so. So, outsourcing makes sense.
I run one of those companies that gets the outsourced work. We are an internet marketing and PR firm. It all blends together and is semantics, but I tend to think of branding agencies as dealing with the bigger strategy, and smaller firms like mine being able to be nimble and react quicker to the changing tides of social media.
The key is: do it, however you do. [more online - view Susan Payton's profile]
The common reason people outsource is that Social Media all seems a bit scary; companies don't know where to start, how much time to invest, how to prove ROI - even the very basics such as WHY they need to use Social Media.
When I started a Social Media strategy for my own company, it was quite overwhelming. What tools to use to save time, how to attract more followers / fans, what content will people be interested in? What worked for me was attending various seminars and training sessions [disclosure: 2e2 provide Social Media training]... [more online - view Emma Henry's profile]
Companies ready for social media (willing to invest time/money,
--------- YOU SHOULD OUTSOURCE IF YOU NEED TO ---------
- Gain knowledge and training for your internal staff
- Build processes to streamline with your existing marketing
- Assess current needs (facts, numbers, traffic, engagement..etc)
- Help your internal staff to scale campaigns (lead and educate)
- Quickly ramp up your social media needs (time to market)
- Accountability, ROI (from agency to client and vice versa)
Ultimately from the business owner's perspective, I recommend to teach someone how to fish instead of giving them the fish and charge them every month. But they need to know the implication of both to decide what's good for them.
However; agencies come in handy to scale and provide the missing pieces from a resource perspective such as production and ideas... [more online - view Eric Tsai's profile]
[...] there is a role for outsourcing digital in the social media space. Surprisingly, there are still many companies out there who are not familiar with how to use social media to build and monitor their brand. That said, if I were to hire an external supplier to run my social media campaign, I would choose someone who had expertise in social media - and social media only. [more online - view Karen Hegmann's profile]
it is much better to outsource to a social media expert, than fumble
through and make a big PR mistake. Once you start a viral brush fire
it's hard to put it out. Of course I'm biased as this is what I do for a
living, but I believe that you need someone to do your social media,
you can't just assign it to someone who's already got a job.
You need someone experienced in reputation and brand management, someone who can track it and give you daily or weekly statistics. Someone who also knows how to get ranked in search engines as that's part of the game. This can't be learned in a week or a month, some are obviously more talented than the rest. [more online - view Patrick Curl's profile]
For the great majority of companies, social media should be outsourced. How and to whom depends on the company's goals (and budgets, of course). If the social media is a video blog or music based, for example, the work will be handled differently than if the main goal is customer service communication. So, yes, the outsourcing will make sense for most companies simply because of the specific and evolving technology tools that can help make the most of social media efforts. [view Glenn Hansen's profile]
[...] A lot of people
(usually people who run "social media consultancies") talk about social
media as if it stands in complete isolation from other types of media.
I am inherently biased because I run a PR agency, but we are finding a lot of success in integrating digital and social media activity into wider PR campaigns for clients. This is all about communicating with an audience, whether that's through the filter of traditional media, or more directly through social media, and this is a skill that PR consultancies are naturally very good at, with the caveat that specific skills such as SEO and online monitoring are often best left to experts in those fields. [more online - view Eddie May's profile]
I think it first depends on how large the company is and how much time
and financial resources they are willing to invest. [...]
I am saying digital media agency rather than PR or branding agency only, because a digital media should be able to understand the principles of online reputation management. And that is what a company needs. A digital media agency should be able to consider PR and branding as well when developing a social media strategy, but add the online bit to it. [more online - view Daniela Badalan's profile]
[...] for clients that have a long
time partnership with an agency, the downside of business knowledge or
authenticity isn't much of a problem [...] there are agency people that are also
authentic, conversational, inspiring and with a sound knowledge of the
social web. And with decades of practice in communication, not 2 years
In the end, it's the result that matters: you can have an internal team with 10 people but with no freedom to act, or partnering with an agency that sometimes is free from the corporate culture and more agile on shipping things. [more online - view Armando Alves profile]
As social media evolves, I believe people will come to see it less and
less as a separate business practice, or even a marketing channel, and
more as simply another communication tool -- and an essential one,
regardless of the size of the company and your role in it.
So in that regard, it's kind of like asking whether companies should outsource email or their telephone. And the answer is that there are some pieces that definitely should be outsourced, but other parts, it's ludicrous to even ask the question. [...]
So the "plumbing" -- the technical infrastructure -- makes sense to outsource. [more online - view Scott Allen's profile]
Social media culture implies a different approach to internal
organization, Human Resources, R&D, production and customer care,
it's not only a communication and marketing business.
Companies need to rethink themselves in order to fully embrace the culture of open conversation, and good consultants (digital strategy ones, I'd suggest) should help them to understand the tools and define effective strategies, keeping in mind branding and business objectives.
You can not externalize your daily conversation (be it CEO's blog or the answer to a customer in trouble), nor you can fully delegate the definition of your objectives, or the evolution of your corporate culture and ethic.
Nonetheless, good external experts can contribute with their expertise, and bring an external point of view which is precious to define an effective strategy. [view Alessandra Farabegoli's profile]
my take is that this is not a black or white situation for several reason: the company structure, the attitude toward relationship with clients, the market, the consulting agencies roster (adv, pr, etc.).
I believe that companies should not outsource social media function, because social media is strictly related to brand perception as well as brand value. Indeed, companies should look for advisors able to carry them across the perils of the social web: when to answer and when not to answer, how to answer, to whom give the first answer, etc. To be honest I see a majority of consultants prepared on the social web but not on some marketing and branding basics..... [view Gianandrea Facchini's profile]
In general terms though, Social media is a two-way, or multi-directional
'conversation' that you're having online. It's the same conversation
that you'd have off-line.
So if you're confident in giving responsibility for someone else, external to your company, to speak, engage and converse on your behalf (off-line AND online), then perhaps outsourcing is a possibility for you.
Myself, i would not feel confident in an external company having the same passion, experience, drive or vision as my own team, so from that perspective i would never contemplate outsourcing. [view Matthew Ogston's profile]
An organization should outsource the engine, but own the strategy. [view Joe Raash's profile]
It depends on what kind of Social Media it is. You refer to PR , so
probably it concerns Communication.
Social Media does have lots of other applications as well.
Outsourcing the Communication itself is a tricky one, outsourcing the Social Media Architecture, Yes! [view Gianluigi Cuccureddu's profile]
Should a company outsource it's employees? Same question. Social media
is a direct communication platform, which is a unique opportunity to
ask, listen and engage. Why would you outsource your R&D, customer
service and marketing? Easy: you don't care about your business OR you
strive for a 4 hour workweek.
An agency's role is to help develop strategies, guide implementation and train internal staff how to manage social media. [more online - view Kent Lewis' profile]
No. Social media is deeply personal. You've got to live and breathe the
message and no one does that better than you.
Can you go outside to learn tips and tricks? Yes. But the everyday stuff needs to stay in house. [view Brian Olson's profile]
However social media is handled, whether internally or outsourced, the
person(s) handling it should be conversant with the various social media
platforms, how they work and what are the appropriate protocols that
make for good manners on those platforms. The person(s) must also be
familiar with and understand the company's products, brand positioning
and messaging. He or she must also be a good communicator, able to
write clearly and succinctly. He or she must also continually monitor
the social media world, to watch for company or brand mentions and to
get an early indication of problems with the product and/or customer
service. He or she must be able to respond or quickly get to the right
people within the organization who can help with an appropriate
All of these criteria can be met by an outsourced provider, be it a p.r. agency, ad or branding agency or a digital agency. The key is to find an agency that can properly handle all the functions mentioned above. [view David Reich's profile]
Social media is part of the overall communication strategy of a company. If that company works with a PR or Branding agency, they should be involved in shaping the strategy for engagement and suggest content. As a PR person, I do not speak for my clients, I work with them to help shape their message and stay on track with their strategic goals. Social media is social. It's a conversation. Conversations are between individuals, not representatives. Everyone markets you whether it is part of their job description or not. It is the job of the digital, PR or Branding agency to help shape the message, not engage directly on behalf of the client. [view Tami Belt's profile]
There will probably be more responses in the next few days.
I truly believe that social media is the new agency-client relationship builder. Edward Boches offers us a couple of interesting data points from Forrester on the question of which agencies have significant ability in what:
As Boches reports:
According to the 16-page report, marketers still need ideas (to make emotional connections); interaction (to reach, connect and most importantly be found); and, of course, intelligence (to optimize brand experiences and more importantly predict outcomes). But this is no longer as simple as identifying an insight, translating it into messages, and measuring awareness or transactions.
It's not about one isolated company anymore -- it's about the whole ecosystem: partners along with other companies who may compete for the same customers by offering different ways of getting the same job done. Never mind internal silos!
Organizations need to understand these new dynamics -- so they can collaborate, crowd source, and augment wherever it makes sense. It's not "either/or" in customers minds anymore. Companies that win have learned to operate with "and/and". I have a MacBook and a Dell laptop at home. I know people who have an HD Flip camera and a Sony -- the list goes on.
There are IP and proprietary things you may still guard as secrets. Look at the new marketing models, and you will quickly realize that employees gossiping on social media are the least of your worries. When companies like Amazon feel perfectly comfortable sitting on the same side of the table with customers, unless you're doing that, there will be someone in your industry who will.
You need to be part of that ecosystem. Agencies need to figure out what they need to help you make sense of things and go operational with them.
What should a company-agency relationship look like? Partnering makes sense to augment skills, go deeper, scale better, ramp up on tools. There are things like integration, editorial direction, social behavior, brand essence that need to come from the organization.
An agency can tease these out. Because it is a third party, it can help with strategy, setting up processes and work flows, feeding back analytics and like-category/industry intelligence, filling the gaps you may have on your team until the learning curve and talent acquisition are up to speed.
An agency cannot decide who you want to be when you grow up as a brand. An agency can help you get things going in social media to a point when you don't have top down buy in. And I will stop there, because I really think we're getting to the interesting bit with the question.
Are you outsourcing social media? Are you thinking about it?
Whenever I work with the community on a question, I like to also use the tools at our disposal to learn about social networks and dynamics. This time I picked LinkedIn, because the question was substantial. It was the right network -- 30 responses overall.
Note that the majority of responses came after the question was integrated with an email request to professionals who have a connection with me. The existing relationship piece accounted for the 21% response rate. Wouldn't you love to have that kind of results in your next program? Remember two key concepts: integration, permission from relationships.
Findings from a landmark PRWeek survey of 128 clients, drawn from across in-house comms, marketing and digital departments, reveal exactly how organisations are grappling with the challenge of integrating social media into their existing operations.
You are not alone. Who gets the biggest slice of outsourcing budgets so far? PR agencies. I believe that's about to change big time and I'll tell you why in another post.
We're talking social networks, thus one should expect distributed conversations. Alessandra Farabegoli took the initiative to pose the question on FriendFeed (caution, Italian, thread carefully) -- it resulted in a very healthy conversation with 16 likes and 15 contributors. I also counted 4 tweets about the question.
Maybe some of these actions would have happened anyway without my established presence on those social networks -- I might not have known about them, not been able to participate without an account.
A small voice in my head also says that without an established presence in all those networks -- and this blog -- we would not be having this conversation rich with contributions.
Should you outsource social media? Is a good question. The bigger question is how should you think about social media transforming your business opportunities? How do you participate in the market's ecosystem? Weigh in!
© 2010 Valeria Maltoni. All rights reserved.